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Defending Romney’s “Binders Full of Women”

October 22, 2012

This piece was first posted on Al Jazeera on Monday 22 October 2012.

Politicians say stupid things all the time. The comment that has caught American attention for the past few days was Mitt Romney’s reference to “binders full of women” during the second presidential debate.

To put the remark in context, Romney was answering a question about equal pay for women (which he skirted) when he began talking about the early days of his administration as governor of Massachusetts and his efforts to incorporate more women into his cabinet.

He said: “….I went to my staff, and I said, how come all the people for these jobs are — are all men? They said, well, these are the people that have the qualifications. And I said…can’t we find some — some women that are also qualified? And — and so we — we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, can you help us find folks? And I brought us whole binders full of — of women.”

Although his choice of words was slightly cringeworthy, it was clear what Romney was trying to say: I don’t just preach inclusion, I practise it too. But his comment sounded off-key and just a bit desperate. It sounded like the only place he would have been able to find any qualified women was in these binders. To draw a crude analogy, he seemed to be shopping for a female cabinet minister the way some men might shop for a mail order bride.

Normal people were left wondering why a corporate titan like Romney would have to resort to a binder to find qualified women. As David Bernstein points out, shouldn’t he have been surrounded by smart and ambitious women through his years in the business world and from his political campaign? It led me to wonder: why were these women so difficult to find in Romney’s world?

On the surface, this appears to be the reason why his comment was so gaffe-worthy. But those who support gender equality ridicule his comments at their own peril. (Mea culpa, I include myself here.) Despite the unfortunate language, the intentions underlying Romney’s comment about binders full of women should be applauded, not derided.

Although it turns out that Romney did not ask for the binder of qualified women but was instead given it by MassGap, a bipartisan coalition of women’s groups, the fact remains that he used that binder it exactly as MassGap intended it to be used. He referred to it in appointing outstanding female candidates to senior leadership positions. This was affirmative action as it was meant to be practised.

Romney even boasted in the next breath that “after I staffed my cabinet and my senior staff… the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.”

Romney should be praised, not chided, for doing with that binder precisely what women’s organizations wanted him to do. He could have tossed that binder straight into the garbage can. The fact that he was proud of having so many women in his cabinet has not gotten nearly as much attention as it deserves.

Having had a few chuckles at Romney’s expense over the past few days, let’s recognize that MassGap’s Binder Full of Women was actually an effective way for him to search for qualified female candidates. After all, we don’t mock organisations like Women In International Security when it assembles its portfolio of renowned female security experts. Nor do we laugh when the BBC works with findaTVexpert to add more women to its roster of television experts. Nor are we tripping over ourselves to make fun of MassGap itself.

These databases of women exist because officials need to make hiring decisions quickly and efficiently. I would be surprised and disappointed if Obama did not have his own binders full of women. Instead, if we want to have a critical conversation about the MassGap binder, let’s find out who was in that binder and what policies they championed on behalf of women.

Sure, Romney could have and should have done more to promote women at Bain and during his governorship. Sure, it was somewhat embarrassing that he did not know enough talented women to fill his cabinet without consulting the MassGap binder.

But mocking Republicans for their efforts to include more women in senior government positions sends entirely the wrong message to those in positions of political and corporate power: We will lambaste you if you fail to include women in your senior ranks, but if you need to look outside your own circles for smart and talented women, we will create internet memes of you that will keep TV talk show hosts feeding on your remains for the foreseeable future.

Is this really what progressive America wants?

If Americans want to roast Romney and the Republicans for their attitudes towards women, then they should do so for the right reasons. There is no need to turn to “binders full of women” to see why the GOP has a problem with female voters.

First, Romney has pledged to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Then there was his promise to appoint an anti-Roe justice to the Supreme Court if given the chance. Let us also not forget Representative Todd Akin’s laughably ignorant assertion that a “legitimate rape” doesn’t lead to pregnancy because “the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down.” And of course, Romney would have refused to sign the Lily Ledbetter Act.

These were the real reasons why the binders full of women comment struck a chord with Americans. In this Romney-Republican world, things happened to women— others made decisions for them, about them. When Romney and the Republicans realize that women can make decisions for themselves and about themselves, then maybe, just maybe, American women will start respecting the Grand Old Party once more.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Brooke permalink
    October 22, 2012 12:19 pm

    Ms. Cheng; your posts are a lesson in clear and concise reasoning. They make a strong point for written analysis over radio or television; a clear signal in a room full of static and white noise. I wish your clarity were contagious.

    • October 22, 2012 3:47 pm

      Thanks Paul. This is extremely kind of you to say. (I’ll be the first to admit though that I had more than my share of laughs at Romney’s expense.)
      I must also admit that I worry about how the issues are currently being framed and debated in the presidential election. I expect the level of political discourse to be more honest and more congenial- the way it used to be. I worry also about the polarization between Democrats and Republicans in the US. The process of this polarization is also leading to more extreme views. Not only is this bad for Americans, but it’s bad for the West, and I’d even say it’s bad for the world.

  2. October 22, 2012 11:17 pm

    I don’t disagree with your analysis of Romney’s comment, but isn’t this overt method of affirmative action what makes it so cringe-worthy? His detractors would suggest that he was so out of touch with the spirit of affirmative action that he had to consciously resort to it, abandoning his usual hiring practices to sort through candidates that had been provided to him by a third party. Rather than seriously considering qualified female candidates on his or his staffers’ own, their way of correcting the hiring process was to seek token women from a list instead of organically developing a staff that recognized and represented the female perspective.

    It may be idealist to suppose that the alternative is realistic, even in Obama’s own staff, but Romney’s choice of wording did little to dispel the notion that his is an old boys’ network where women are hired not because he desires them for what they bring to the table but for satisfying a quota.

    • October 23, 2012 11:52 am

      I absolutely agree with you Scott. I do think that this is a fundamental problem that has been pointed out by many, many others. Having said that, I also think that Romney deserves some credit for a) recognizing the deficiency and b) implementing a corrective. After all, you could replace “women” with “minority” in many cases and rarely do people try to correct that particular imbalance.

      There are also very practical problems to hiring large numbers of qualified people at one time. I expect that it is much more difficult than we might expect.

      I also think the binder is an efficient and effective way to bring in qualified people outside of one’s own partisan circle- thus leading to a more inclusive administration and one that is more likely to have different ideas about how to do things. I would actually go farther than I did in the op-ed and argue that this is actually an ideal way to look for qualified women rather than to simply choose those people you already know.

  3. Lisa Sarinelli permalink
    October 23, 2012 6:17 am

    Ms. Cheng:

    Defending Romney would be admirable if his claim was, in fact, true. It is not. A reporter for the Boston Phoenix has pointed this out in his article here: http://blog.thephoenix.com/BLOGS/talkingpolitics/archive/2012/10/16/mind-the-binder.aspx

    However, in my opinion, you did a bang-up on your analysis of his comments! :)

    • October 23, 2012 11:41 am

      Thanks for your comment Lisa. I actually did make reference to the fact that he didn’t ask for the binder: “Although it turns out that Romney did not ask for the binder of qualified women but was instead given it by MassGap…” There is also a hyperlink to David Bornstein’s article embedded in that sentence (the same link you’ve referenced).

      Even though I didn’t focus on it, the fact that he wants to claim credit for the binder is good and bad. It’s bad because he lied about it, showing poor character and poor judgment (you don’t think you’re going to get caught in the insta-fact checking era?). Alternatively, it’s bad because he has a poor memory and honestly thought he had asked for the binder. This is more forgivable, but a bad memory is not a desirable trait in a president.

      Here’s why it’s good: he wants to please female voters. He wanted to claim credit for initiating affirmative action in a national debate. (Of course, I’m not convinced he is genuine about it.)

      The best unintentional effect of his slip-up: we are now having an international debate about women’s issues that are normally never discussed.

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